Balancing people and product for profitable growth

This blog is a summary of an upcoming e-book “Product-led Customer Success”.

As CEO of Clicktools, one of the UK’s first SaaS companies, I was always seeking better ways to deliver profitable growth.  I have been an advocate of customer focus since the late 80’s: actions therefore were always based on the premise that what we did had to be good for customers AND the company.  We appointed our first customer success manager in 2004, following the lead taken by Salesforce and went on to build a very successful team of CSMs. Gross revenue retention was mid-90s and net revenue retention well over 100%.  Given that success, would I do the same if I was building a SaaS business today?

No: let me explain.

A B2B SaaS company sells a product that helps the customer achieve a goal; to deliver benefits. These benefits are the focus of the marketing and sales process and delivering those promised benefits, the customer’s desired outcome, is the whole premise behind the philosophy of customer success.

As a product company, it should therefore be an inherent part of the product.  Unfortunately, most B2B SaaS products don’t deliver.  Instead, CEOs build a team of people to fill gaps in the product’s capability.  Worse still, this knee-jerk response is seen as the best practice.  Think that through: so called best practice is to add recurring cost to your business and constant interruptions to your customer to address a failure to deliver on your value proposition – a product that helps customers achieve their goal.

If I were starting out again, my first response would be to look at how the delivering customer success can be built into the product.  Here’s why.

  • Helping to achieve the customer’s goal is a B2B SaaS company’s raison d’etre. It must therefore be the primary goal of the product itself.
  • We are approaching the point where contacts and notifications swamp our attention and reduce productivity.B2B customers are using an increasing number of apps, the suppliers of which each want time.  A buyer just wants a product that helps deliver their goals. A backlash to the interruption economy is coming.
  • Technology to deliver self-service customer success has come on leaps and bounds. The development of applied AI and machine learning, will further enhance the ability to deliver contextually rich guidance.  The companies that build success processes into the product will use these technologies to enhance their understanding of what drives success, furthering their advantage.
  • The basis of self-service customer success is a deep understanding of customer’s objectives and the changes they have to make to achieve them. The depth of understanding required to deliver self-service CS is itself a source of advantage.
  • Done well, it is a path to scale at higher margins. Recent researchby Notion Capital and Frontline  shows that many (but not all) self-service based SaaS companies are delivering leading financial performance.

What does it take to embed customer success into the product?  The starting point is a deep understanding of what the customer is trying to achieve (their desired outcome), the challenges they face in achieving their goal and how the best players overcome these challenges to achieve their goals. This of course includes the role your product plays in their work.  This understanding is the basis of customer success, however it is delivered.

Not helping the customer address the changes they have to make is essential to delivering customer success and thereby the retention, revenue and referrals business growth needs.

Deep customer understanding is the basis for building four capabilities into the product:

  • Discovery: Building a picture of how the customer currently operates
  • Goal setting: What the customer is trying to achieve, including guidance on     achievable and stretch goals.
  • Success plan:  The steps the customer needs to take and how the product is best configured to help the customer achieve their goal.
  • Working space:  A simple goal and activity tracking capability supported by delivery of contextually rich advice and guidance.
  • Success reporting: A dashboard showing progress towards the desired outcome, highlighting out of norm activities.

People tell me this is too complex.  I disagree.  I readily admit it will take work and some trial and error.  I think the problem is that much of what we describe as customer success is in fact supplier success; meeting our own retention and revenue goals, irrespective of the success the customer achieves.  It also seems that we can afford people to do this important task but we lack the vision productise it.

The sub-title of the blog is ‘Balancing people and technology to deliver customer success’.  I do not see product-led customer success as the end of the CSM. I do however see a change in the number required and what they do.  Much of the basic work of customer success; guiding product use, setting goals, process change advice will become part of the product.  CSMs will focus on the higher order challenges of change: helping customers build the case for change, shoring up their courage and providing examples of success.  It sounds a bit airy fairy but they become change counsellors more than process experts.

I am not saying no to people delivering CS; just don’t make it your first and only response. When your CEO comes to you at the next budget cycle and asks you how many more CSMs you need, say ‘None but I would like a small development team please!’

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